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This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Saturday, September 7, 2013


At the end of NATURAL LAWBREAKING PT. 4 I said:

It should be easy to find any number of critics, professional or amateur, who support this elitist "sheep and goats" attitude.  I know that I can find, and have found, this attitude in many of my favored targets-- Gary Groth, Noah Berlatsky, Chicken Colin.  But I hate to keep falling back on these "old reliables." 

Ask and ye shall receive.

Here's a Dave McKean comment from a CBR interview, talking about the sexual content of his new graphic novel CELLULOID:

Well, sex is OK. I like sex. Why are there so many books about violence? Why are there so many books and stories about violence? How much violence do you come upon in your daily life? How much sex have you had? It seems out of balance. I think sex is a lovely thing, something to be celebrated and explored in every form — in film, in comics, in all sorts. I touched on it in a book I did called Cages.

I certainly agree with McKean that sex is eminently likeable.  I also liked CAGES enough to put in in my essay 100 BEST COMICS.  What I don't like is McKean's attempt to "fix the game" by resorting to an elitist literary priority: that the situation "seems out of balance" if the number of works that attempt to reproduce reality is not equal or greater in number to those those works that do not. 

To be sure, McKean doesn't extrapolate his dichotomy into a full-blown "sheep vs. goats" opposition, after the fashion of Gary Groth.  But he does structure his argument with a sort of "wake up and smell the reality" rhetoric.  On Robot 6 I stated the terms of my opposition:

If Dave McKean prefers realistic comics, that’s fine. If he thinks literature is better when it attempts to reproduce real life, that too is fine. Making the statement “what I like is supported by the way real life is”– which is IMO far from “obvious”– that’s not fine with me, even if there’s nothing I can do about it.

It's certainly understandable that he should advertise his new work by mentioning whatever he considers to be its crowning virtues.  But what end does he expect to achieve by denigrating, however mildly, the degree to which our culture deals with "so many books and stories about violence?"  Does he believe that any readers who enjoy violent comics will suddenly have the scales fall from their eyes and seek out non-violent forms of entertainment, even if they don't necessarily seek out CELLULOID? I would certainly like to believe that he's not simply preaching to the choir, as is so often the case with full-blown elitists.

I must admit that McKean is not as doctrinaire as the Bloody Comic Book Elitists I mentioned above.  I get the impression that he simply doesn't give much thought to the role of violence in fiction because it's not to his taste, and he doesn't appear to be guilty, like (say) fellow artcomics producer Daniel Clowes, of being what I call a "blend of reductive pessimism and covert self-glorification."  But McKean is still egregiously wrong to make this argument in favor of mimetic realism in fiction:

Why are there so many books and stories about violence? How much violence do you come upon in your daily life? How much sex have you had? It seems out of balance.

Rather than illustrating some strange cultural imbalance, the prevalence of violence in fiction connotes fiction's need for conflict, a need which in turn should suggest fiction's independence from the standards of nonfictional truth-telling.  Were one able to come up with an accurate statistical reading, I don't doubt that works of popular fiction would be found to make more frequent use of violence than do works of whatever we choose to call "canonical fiction."  But that does not eliminate the significant use of violence by literary authors.  An elitist might dismiss the literary lights of the 1800s for being too close to the realm of popular fiction.  He might even choose to dismiss even Faulkner and Hemingway for being tainted by what William Slotkin called the "blood and guts" tradition in American literature.  But by the time we get to Cormac McCarthy publishing NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN in 2007, I think one is justified in seeing that violence as a narrative tool that works just as well for canonical literature as for pop fiction in terms of promoting narrative conflict.

I could delve even further into other reasons why the general phenomenon of violence lends itself to greater narrative utility than does the phenomenon of  sex, but for now I think it's enough to state the obvious: fiction needs conflict, and that violence is a better vehicle of conflict than is sex. 

To be sure, even if sex does not serve to promote narrative conflict as well as violence does, this certainly does not reduce the former phenomenon to a second-class citizenship.  In the schema I call "pluralism"-- the philosophical opponent to elitism-- every element of art and literature is to be appreciated for its distinct qualities, rather than being unilaterally subordinated to another element or elements. 

And, little though I've invoked the concepts of freedom and free will in this essay, this pluralistic ethic is also key to what I deem an accurate depiction of what it means to be free.

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